PortHop, the new start-up venture by Andrija Čolak, the entrepreneur behind the Surf’n’Fries franchise, could become the next big thing on the international nautical market, and is sometimes dubbed “the nautical Booking.com”, but it seems that their negotiations with the port authorities in Croatia are worse than fighting the windmills. Or, better yet, fighting the buoys, Ana Kostanić writes for Netokracija.
Imagine going on your vacation without any idea where you’ll be staying: you just start going from one street to another, knocking on doors, and hope you’ll find something available and acceptable. Instead of doing your research a month or so in advance in peace, you waste time finding the accommodation that way. Luckily, when it comes to boarding, those times are long gone, but when it comes to docking your boat in the Adriatic – that’s exactly how things still work today!
There’s no way for a boat to know if they’ll be able to get a berth before they actually arrive at the marina, port or a holder of a concession with the buoys for rent. There are no reservations, and all of them operate at the “first come – first served” principle. If you’re too late, you’re out of luck – you either need to find another marina, or spend the night anchored somewhere. That wasn’t that big of a deal when there weren’t that many boats, but today every nautical tourist is aware that this is a problem. One of those people is Andrija Čolak, known for his Surf’n’Fries franchise and Kisha umbrellas, so he developed the PortHop application. First promoted at the Netokracija’s event in 2016, the official apps appeared in 2017 but not much has been heard since. Now, in 2019, Andrija has announced that the app is finally making the “real launch”, with improved interface and features.
New features include additional information, like the closest gas stations, restaurants and the most appealing coves of the Adriatic, in addition to a large number of listed berths. All of that lead over 10,000 users to download the application, and the number of reservations made through it is growing every day. The nautical tourists want to use this service, but when it comes to the other side of the equation (those who provide the berths), things are, quite unsurprisingly, quite different. They have not readily accepted the basics of the so-called sharing economy. Mr. Čolak explains that it takes a lot of work, time, energy and patience to convince them to agree to a new, but a greatly improved method of booking and functioning of the reservations for the transfer berths.
The situation is even worse with port authorities, who don’t even want to negotiate their way of operating. Port authorities say that they only have the concessions, that the counties are the ones making such strategic decisions, and counties say that they should talk to the port authorities, in classic Croatian style of doing business. The basis for such behavior is, Mr. Čolak says, the inertia and lack of responsibility and the will to improve the nautical tourism and bring it somewhat closer to the 21st century. He adds that the Ministry should make the first step and shake things up, so that projects such as PortHop would be allowed to do their part of the task.
Ana Kostanić from Netokracija requested comments from some of the port authorities but is yet to receive an answer. But, not much in terms of an explanation is to be given. This is, Andrija says, a classic case of negligence over something that is administered by the state, while the private concessioners or marinas embrace anything that will increase the number of their clients or bigger income.
Croatia is missing the opportunity with nautical tourism, and that’s a widely known fact. The plans in 2009 said that it will bring up to 14 billion kuna in income before 2019, but we’re nowhere near one billion kuna currently. In 2018, the number of vessels at the ports was 3.8% smaller than in 2017, and it’s quite obvious that 2019 will probably be even worse. The nautical tourism in Croatia accounts for just 1% of the overall tourist income, which is sad on its own, and additionally sad if we know that nautical tourists spend 40% more than an average tourist.
PortHop is not the only service hoping to partially change that and bring Croatian nautical tourism into the digital era, there’s also Marinebook, and there are many global attempts at the market. Unfortunately, the process is going quite slowly. Mr. Čolak says that their product has certain unique selling points, such as the differences in the part of the system devoted to the users. They have a special loyalty program for several segments, including the charter companies. They also want to offer some of the truly useful stuff that won’t bring them any money – such as the most beautiful coves of the Adriatic. One of the challenges is including the safety data regarding the situation at the sea bottom in the app, which is something that exists in the analog form but needs to be digitized for such applications. The providers of the berths have varied rules and procedures (for instance, when you can make a booking for the next day), so each of them has to be put in the app.
Although Andrija has already taken his startup to the foreign market, PortHop is significantly different. First foreign market for them was Germany, which happened organically for them. In Germany, the marinas are smaller and more traditional than in Croatia, but those are all challenges that can be solved. If they succeed in Germany, they plan to go global, which means they would need new investors, Andrija confirms. They’re currently negotiating a 3 to 6 million dollar investment, which would help them finalise the process. They see the biggest potential in the markets in Greece, the Carribean, Spain, France…
So, the current situation with the port authorities is not helping to create an original Croatian export product. And it’s important to add that services such as PortHop can increase the trust between the parties in the transaction and make payments easier. That’s just one of the advantages of using modern digital systems. One of the disadvantages it that such systems would help eradicate the “grey economy” in the field. Currently, Andrija says, that it’s not rare to see the people working the berths try to extort the potential users. One application (or even many of them) could help stop that problem, but it’s just the matter of who will be the responsible person to say “Let’s fix this problem!”